You have to walk the talk. Do what you say or you lose all credibility. If your boss says everyone needs to give 110% and be a team player, then goes home early, takes long lunches, and throws you under the bus every time something goes wrong; you don’t believe them. You are going to give about 50-60% effort. My rule of thumb is the more hyperbole someone says about what I should be doing, the more likely they are insecure and incompetent. The best leaders lead by example. This is true for parents, politicians, preachers and teachers. You have to walk the talk. Actions speak louder than words. Here are a few more cliques. “He wrote a check with his mouth that his bank account can’t cash.” “That cowboy is all hat and no cattle.”
This is a great theme in ancient wisdom literature. Aristotle said that if you want to speak persuasively, character is the first prerequisite. If you have competence, good intent and empathy for your audience; that is more persuasive than good arguments or a nice turn of phrase. The Apostle Paul said in I Cor. 13:1 “If I speak with the tongues of angels and have not love, I am but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Jesus gets right to it, “Walk the talk.”
If this were easy, there would not be so much written about lining up our speech with our character. If this were easy, Congress would not have a 9 percent approval rating. When I have writer’s block with a sermon, it is seldom a lack of creativity; it is a fear that I cannot live up to what I say. Why is this so hard to walk the talk? The first reason is I have high hopes and ideals. My imagination outstrips my ability. I can see how I want to be, I can write and speak it clearly, but it is very hard to live up to my ideal in reality. It takes more courage and effort and fortitude than I can sometimes summon. We all fall short of our ideals and that is so very human.
I think Jesus is getting at something deeper here in the text, something that is often more unconscious inside us. In our readings since September in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been going hard at the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They are like the complaining laborers who don’t like others getting paid the minimum wage, they are the wicked servants in the vineyard who take what is not theirs, they don’t show up to the great royal wedding banquet, they challenge Jesus on taxes and carry around Caesar’s coin. Today’s text is Jesus’s parting shot at the Jerusalem leadership.
These guys are so bad that by Matthew 23, we are all behind Jesus thinking, “You give it to them Jesus. Unmask those hypocrites.” We like that kind of thing. Its why I watch Trevor Noah and Steven Colbert. They are great at lampooning anyone who is a hypocrite. If everyone walked the talk, they would be out of a job. Isn’t it interesting that one of our major sources of entertainment is watching people get taken down a notch? The positive reason is we need humor as a release or it would just make us too angry. I cannot watch the news without a safety valve of humor. If Gail Collins takes a week off from her twice-weekly column in the NY Times, Jeanne and I go into mourning. How do we face reality without Gail’s wit?
In modern terms, Jesus says to his opponents, “You like having that Harvard sticker on the back window of your car, You want everyone to call you Rev. or Dr., you name drop so easily when you pray at the Mayor’s inauguration.” In brief, you are all about you. You are a bunch of egomaniacs, to use Freud’s language. Egotistical. Here’s the problem with being ego focused. Most of us are not very good at estimating ourselves. People of status consistently overestimate their own abilities and underestimate the abilities of others. Not to pick on doctors, (we have some very humble doctors in our congregation, but this is who gets researched) but 2/3 of doctors overestimate their competence compared to outside individuals. Most doctors think they are in the top 10 percent of their profession. It is probably the same for most professions – lawyers, architects, clergy, cab drivers.
The point is human beings are terrible at estimating their own abilities. We over or under-estimate ourselves, and seldom have a spot on view of who we are. Know thyself is great advice, but hard to do. Why is that? Here is what I think. True self-knowledge forces us to change. If we think too highly of ourselves, negative feedback not only hurts, but it means we need to change some things-admit when we are wrong, ask advice, be more of a team player, work on our weakness. Honesty brings change. It’s true if we underestimate ourselves. We can be scared to find out we have more potential than we thought. Others may ask things of us. We might have to risk failure to be true to ourselves, and it is easier to think less of ourselves and sit on the sidelines. To know thyself means we would continually challenged. It sounds like hard work, but it is not as hard as holding up a false ego.
We are done hearing Jesus skewer the self-righteous with his clever parables,. Now he turns to his audience and says, “Don’t you be like that. Walk the talk.” Easy there Jesus. I didn’t expect this to get personal about me. Jesus challenges us to be humble. Too often people think that means being down on yourself. There is nothing inconsistent with valuing your best abilities and being humble. If you are good your are good. But get some feedback. Everyone needs at least one honest friend. They can be a pain, but find people who will tell you “well done” when you get it right, and give you that look when you don’t. Humility is the fruit of listening, asking questions, “What do you think? What would you do?” Do you know that asking advice does not make you look weak, it actually makes you more popular. Everyone likes to be asked. You don’t have to take the advice, but it is good to ask.
If you are still questioning yourself, the rightness of your actions, struggling with your ego, Jesus says this. “Be a servant. Be of service to others. If you truly want to be free of the burdens of ego, help someone else and you might forget all about yourself. And then you are free indeed.
This is what saints do, they find freedom and fulfillment in service to others, they walk the talk. As Saint Francis said, “Preach the Gospel always. And if you have to, use words.”